WORDS BY Salomé Gómez-Upegui
A new photographic exhibition by Richard Mosse depicts ecocide across the Amazon using multispectral imaging like never before. In an interview with Atmos, Mosse explains how he managed to capture mass devastation in such detail and his thoughts on the potential power of art to make a difference.
In 2019, fires in the Amazon Rainforest grew by 80%. Images of millions of trees burning in flames went viral. Climate change activists begged for control and protection. Politicians, celebrities, and swathes of social media users joined the public outcry to stop the massive fires, many of which were illegally started by ranchers clearing land for cattle pasture. Well over a year later, virality has died down, but the environmental catastrophe in Brazil is continuous and thriving.
In Tristes Tropiques (on show at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York between April 8 and May 15), Irish artist Richard Mosse showcases massive aerial photographs depicting ongoing deforestation, underground fires, land invasion, agribusiness, illegal mining, and often overlooked environmental crimes unfolding from the Brazilian Pantanal wetlands to the Amazon Basin.
“Speaking about such a vast planetary environmental catastrophe is very hard to do with a humble camera,” Mosse told Atmos. The challenge led him to use the activated medium of multispectral imaging, a fascinating technology often employed by environmental scientists to protect the rainforest (though, conversely, also used by agribusiness and mining companies to more profitably exploit the land).
In our interview, Mosse shares how this project changed his relationship to the environment, his thoughts on the potential power of art to make a difference, and how he managed to capture devastating ecocide in such breathtaking detail—a panorama he describes as one of the saddest things he’s ever seen.
What drew you to Brazil?
In the summertime of 2019, there was a lot of press about the burning rainforest because it was exponentially increasing under [Brazilian president] Jair Bolsonaro. I’d been taking pictures in the Ecuadorian cloud forest prior to this, looking at aspects of the biomass that I would light at night using ultraviolet lights to see the fluorescence, which is incredibly beautiful. I made these extraordinarily large prints from very tiny pieces of biomass which were fluorescing and defamiliarizing to the viewer in a way, because they’re very otherworldly, almost like a sci-fi galaxy.
Those images were an introduction to this whole project, and when the burning began big time, my desire was to go from the micro to the macro. I pulled back the camera, from zooming in on these tiny things to trying to find a lens wide enough to take in the entire Amazon. It’s a vast place, obviously; the biggest rainforest in the world with enormous amounts of biodiversity being destroyed at a catastrophic scale, rate, frequency, velocity.
Walk me through the process of capturing these photographs.
The camera I could afford was a ten-band multisensor camera that fits on the bottom of a drone that’s sold to farmers to understand the health of their crops and drainage patterns in their fields. It’s a three-step process: The first step is to capture the images in the field; to find the site of environmental crime, for example, or the piece of land you wish to capture a map of. This is a form of map-making. You have to figure out how to get access to the place, who to talk to, who not to talk to, and find a safe place to launch. I autopilot the drone so it runs back and forth across the landscape I’ve chosen to document. And, every second, it’s simultaneously taking ten photographs across different spectral reflectances.
My studio manager Matthew counted up the images used to produce all eighteen works of this exhibition and the computer told us we processed 298,000 images.
Then there are two more stages: The first one is to turn all of those separate images that are overlapping into a map. For this, we create an ortho-tiff, a very large file that has ten layers of data, and then bring that into GIS (Geographic Information System) software. This is where the fun begins because you get to play around with the different bands. Scientists do the same thing to reveal aspects of environmental health on the ground you often can’t see with the human eye. This is a false-color reassignment of invisible light, sometimes mixed with visible light, that when brought together into an RGB [red, green, blue] color space, expresses aspects of environmental damage in powerful ways.
How do you achieve the hue you’re looking for? And what role does color play in your storytelling?
Well, that’s the GIS setting; when I’m playing around and I’m looking at which symbology—as it’s called—will give me the most disarming image on an aesthetic level. It doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful but hopefully it’s a punch to the viewer between the eyes, also yielding as much indexical information as possible. I’m not working as a scientist—I’m working as an artist. But these are living maps that show the pain of the flora and fauna.
There’s one map, Burnt Pantanal 1, where you can see the darker lipstick reds of the plants and that’s a happier healthier plant. And then coming up alongside it, where the fire has burnt, some of those plants are very distressed. They’re in the process of dying, half-burnt, or clinging onto life. Those are more pink, sort of a pale pink. And then the dead stuff, it’s all weirdly greeny, browny, ochre, blacks.
Tell me about the title. Why Tristes Tropiques?
It’s a masterpiece of nonfiction by anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss. It was one of those rare moments when a book comes along that’s not just incredibly well written, but it chimes with all of your interests. I started reading it after I began a lot of this work. I wish I’d read it before, but I was very surprised when I finished and realized all of the places he had gone in that particular book were more or less where I’d gone.
The reason I like the book so much is that he’s constantly having doubts about his discipline as an anthropologist—he’s a very good anthropologist, obviously—but he’s got this creeping self-doubt about what the purpose of his task is. And sadness. I suppose this is why the book is called Triste Tropiques, the sad tropics, the sadness about the encroachment of western civilization into these places. He knew damn well what the future for these areas would be. He predicted it, but I often wonder, since I went basically where he went, what it would be like if he was there seeing it with me so many years later.
Has this project changed your relationship with the environment?
This work has a lot to do with our complicity. I think constantly about ethics. Who’s responsible for this? Who’s complicit? I met a lot of people who carry out the burning of the rainforest, for example. I’ve also made friends with illegal miners—garimpeiros, they’re called—and these guys are regularly dumping mercury into rivers, but still really nice guys. They don’t have much of a choice. Well, they do. But the point I’m trying to make is I began to feel and observe the guilt of these actors on the ground. And they’re about as guilty as the cows themselves, in my opinion. Now obviously they have more guilt than cows because the cows are herded up by us in vast numbers and slaughtered, and there’s a willfulness about the fires in the Amazon we don’t see elsewhere. The thing about the fires in Amazon is there are millions of people willfully tearing down the rainforest on an economic level, and that’s a tragedy that has become normalized despite these being crimes.
These cows are being farmed and slaughtered for big corporations such as JBS, the most profitable corporation in Brazil, exporting huge amounts of processed meat to the Middle East, the States, [and] especially China. That’s a long way to go for a load of cattle carcasses on a ship.
It’s shocking to see a huge spread of rainforest being burnt. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. It’s as simple as that, and I’ve seen a lot of sadness in the world. That’s an emotional answer, but it’s moved me profoundly, and I’ve struggled because I want to do it justice as a storyteller. Artists, we can’t do much, except we can do one cool thing: we can make somebody else feel something, hopefully in a new and original way—a powerful way—and that’s pretty special.
What actual change do you think environmental art can bring?
I always see what I do as just a small part of a bigger group, a movement of other actors, some of whom are human rights lawyers or activists, or volunteers, research architects, or writers. All together we multiply each other’s efforts and hopefully try to change the world that way. And it’s folly to think one person can go off and change the world. I mean, we must continue to think that because it’s our belief system and without it, we wouldn’t get up in the morning as artists. But I do think the world changes through this process of multiplying each other’s efforts on a generational level and I think we’re seeing a lot more of that with younger people now, which is really exciting.